Saturday, February 21, 2009

What do Our Kids Know? by C.R. Hoff


This past week in my copy of “Education Week” there was an excellent column by Robert Pondiscio. Mr. Pondiscio suggests that many of our children do not begin to understand many of the references President Obama made in his Inaugural Address.

I offer the following quote: “If you do not know what happened at Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Khe Sanh, the sacrifices of those who “fought and died” for us in those places is lost on you. As uncomfortable as it is to consider, if our children are ignorant of that history, then at least some measure of that sacrifice was, alas, in vain.”

I have seen many examples of this “ignorance” in discussions with students and even among some school board members with whom I served.

Why is this the case? Some educators would suggest that this is a result of the intense focus on Reading, Writing and Mathematics that the WASL and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have required. Others, including many in our district’s Social Studies Department would suggest that they “do not cover specific events” as they are trying to “develop critical thinking!” So much for the idea that an understanding of History is of any importance!

In the past schools in this state have been pretty proud of their ability “to raise the reading levels” of their students and point out that WASL scores, in reading, have risen above 90%. One might ask, “What were these kids reading?” Evidently not anything that included any significant facts. Instead of reading about Wolfe, Pitt, Paine, MacKenzie, Coulter, Shackleton, Curie, Pasteur, Tesla etc. they have been given assignments that may have improved their reading skills, but did not give them any sense of progress in either History or Science. Many Blacks can’t identify Martin Luther, and many Mexican Americans can not describe “Cinco de Mayo.” I should have figured this out many years ago when I was in one of our high schools using the telephone, and asked a couple of students ”who had invented it?” Will “Dick and Jane” and “Catcher in the Rye” add to a child’s basic knowledge of History or Science? Will reading these novels portray the concept that it is through effort that success is achieved? No in both cases!

Why is it that most of us, who went to high school 40 years ago, would recognize most of these significant personages and most, if not nearly all, of current students have no idea what we are talking about? Why is it that most of us of that era can figure out how much a 10% discount is?

Could it be that we had parents, and teachers, who made it clear to us that these were priorities? I think so.
Thomas Friedman, highly regarded columnist of the New York Times, wrote the other day about a solution to our current financial problems that was suggested to him when he was visiting India. “All you need to do is grant visas to two million Indians, Chinese and Koreans,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express newspaper. “We will buy up all the subprime homes. We will work 18 hours a day to pay for them. We will immediately improve your savings rate — no Indian bank today has more than 2 percent nonperforming loans because not paying your mortgage is considered shameful here. And we will start new companies to create our own jobs and jobs for more Americans.”
Jobs for Americans? I am not sure if there are any Americans who would either qualify for these jobs, or be willing to take them. The good paying jobs that they would offer would require “knowledge” and the other jobs they offer would, as the President of the University of Washington suggested, be “washing the cars” of those with knowledge.

Knowledge would appear to be the desired commodity of the 21st Century. Yet in schools, and after schools, there seems to be very little regard for this by a majority of students who seem to either not be planning a future, or planning one that they think will not require “learning.” Rock stars, NBA player seem to a vocational aim for a very significant portion of our children, and the adults in their lives seem to be willing to allow this kind of thinking.

In the New York Times this past week there was an article entitled “Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes.” This article, written by a college professor, put forth some concepts that students have evidently learned in their K-12 experience.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.” “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’ “ “I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.” These are all quotes from this article!

Could this be why the Indians, Koreans, and Chinese do so well in our flaccid education system? If we were to judge our system on the basis of passing Advanced Placement exams versus ethics of test takers, I think we might be able to reinforce this theory.

If “Knowledge is the Commodity of the 21st Century,” and we keep this up, car washing in the slums of the future America just might be the highest goal for many of our students. Remember only 14% of Washington’s 9th graders finish college in 10 years. This means that there will be no shortage of car wash candidates.

Are we switching from the “Village Idiot” to the “Village of Idiots?” School Board members and parents please take note of these trends, and act!

------------- by Charles R. Hoff

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